A friend of mine introduced the ancient town of Litang to me as "the first town up the stairway to the roof of the world." Located in the Ganzi Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, in the isolated far west of Sichuan Province, Litang possesses a strong frontier flavor, with fortress-like stone houses and streets full of nomads who shop with silver swords bound to their belts.
Every July, Litang hosts a world-renowned horse festival that makes it a highlight on the road between Chengdu and Lhasa. But I came here looking rather for the utter peacefulness of the most remote tourist area in China: there is no airport, and it takes at least two long days to get to Litang by bus from any major city.
Fortunately, the drive is scenic and I felt like I had been traveling between seasons as I passed from green valleys through the red and yellow autumn of the mountain forest before finally reaching the treeless and windblown Tibetan plateau. Here lies Litang, at 3,900 meters above sea level. As the road led gently to an overlook, I could see the village blending into its wild environment.
Many local houses are made of brown stones that blend with the barren landscape. Only the richly decorated windows stand out, in a festival of greens, reds, yellows and blues matched by the numerous small flags overhanging the main streets. Litang is also a place where new technologies like the Internet are introduced in a remote region where horseback travel is still widespread. The result is an incredible blend of timeless tradition and modernity.
As an outside visitor, I was amazed to discover an isolated place that was nevertheless lively. Litang's streets are always busy, with nomads wearing colorful yak fur, for whom the town is an important supply center and a good place for socializing. The town brings a spark of human life to the middle of the desolate and untamed Tibetan plateau. It is an oasis.
After walking a few minutes out of town I found myself in a vast open field where no trees grow. It felt like the roof of the world, with a surrounding range of snowcapped mountains spanning as far as I could see. The sky itself looked brighter and bigger, even as my lungs seemed to shrink. Even moderate effort accelerated my breathing. I was just starting to feel the mild rarefaction of oxygen. As soon as the sun disappeared behind a cloud, the temperature dropped, a chilling wind reminding me of the high altitude of the settlement.
From here I could clearly see several Tibetan stupas and a red brick wall shining above the village. This was the ancient Litang lamasery, built after the passage of the Fourth Dalai Lama some 400 years ago, now home to more than a thousand monks. As I made my way uphill to the lamasery, I met many friendly villagers trying to overcome the language barrier to chat with me. Entire families were working on the new harvest of straw, laboring in the middle of the streets. Hoards of joyful children roamed and played around, while the weathered faces of the elderly locals greeted me with a heartwarming "tashidelek," the traditional Tibetan greeting.
Soon it was dusk, a time when the multicultural population of Litang gathers at outdoor food stalls in the streets lining the town center. Chinese and Tibetans alike congregate around warm barbecue facilities and share diverse grilled meats before heading inside a bar to watch the latest video filmed in Lhassa. While sitting down with my newfound friends and sipping a hot mug of tea, I realized that a town like Litang is all about getting together in a harsh-albeit beautiful-environment.